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Say no to Bill 168: open letter to the honourable members of the Ontario legislature

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Image: Photo by Bruce Reeve, modified by Independent Jewish Voices Canada

"How is this night different from all other nights?" Such is the question we, Jews, ritually ask the youngest child at the Passover table. Commemorating the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, the question carries with it resonances of a chosen people, at once persecuted and graced with sanctity. Remarkably, this biblical narrative of specialness -- not only of what Jews do on Passover, but of who they are -- continues to grip the political conscience of many.

So widely granted is this exceptionalism that the question of "distinction," typically reserved for the Seder dinner, is now on Ontario's political table with Will Bouma's Bill 168. The latter is calling for the province to adopt and legally entrench the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's working definition of anti-Semitism (IHRA-WDA). To the honourable members of the legislature who await the bill's third reading, I ask, in the idiom of Passover: "How is anti-Semitism different from all other racisms?" To be sure, anti-Semitism is a vile form of racism, but in 2020 there are many other forms of racism that are equally heinous, and of these, many specifically target Black peoples, Indigenous peoples, and, not least, Muslims. 

Only a few weeks ago, New Delhi Muslims were the victims of atrocious pogroms. Myanmar Muslims have long been victims of ethnic cleansing; in China, Muslims are rounded into camps; in the U.S., Muslims are subjected to countless travel bans and deportations; and in Palestine, Muslims, as I write, are under the heel of an oppressive 70-year military occupation

While a private member's bill against Islamophobia reached second reading in April of 2019, a year later it has still not reached third reading. Under the Ford government, will it ever become law? Meanwhile, anti-Muslim racism is rampant. One could be forgiven for concluding that today's Muslim is the new Jew.

Despite the rising tide of Islamophobia, Jewish exceptionalism continues to prevail, bound up as it is with the holiness of the Bible and the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. The 20th-century genocide of Jews is a grim reminder of human hell, a memory that has turned into an ethical injunction: "Never again!" But for decades now, this moral edict has been conflated with the interests of a powerful political industry serving the state of Israel. 

In 2020, this same industry continues to invoke the spectre of the Second World War, less as an elegiac tribute to those who perished in the camps than as a manufactured moral consensus supported by a concert of world powers who give the state of Israel preferential treatment, disallowing any contestation of her "immunity" from Geneva conventions and international law. The IHRA-WDA and Will Bouma's Bill 168 abet that very favouritism and the prohibitions erected to protect it. Such preferential treatment is not only a travesty of moral righteousness, it is also profoundly racist; it suggests that the ghastliness of antisemitism supersedes all other racisms.

Of what use then is the IHRA-WDA? Dressed as an educative tool levelled against hate speech, it does nothing to stem the tide of anti-Semitic attacks. Instead it functions as a penal code that blackmails human rights advocates, many of whom are conscientious Jews. Meanwhile, the definition sequesters the true perpetrators of heinous racism: no self-proclaimed anti-Semite or neo-Nazi group is on the IHRA-WDA's wanted list. 

Deeply flawed, the IHRA-WDA rests on a false equation between the state of Israel and Jews more generally. Seven out of 11 instances cited in the definition refer to criticisms of the state of Israel, intertwined with conventional instances of anti-Jew hatred. Trenchant critiques of the current Israeli state are thus tagged as forms of anti-Semitism. But Jews and their communities are not states, and cannot be confused with the latter, except through misleading rhetoric. To oppose Israel's state-sanctioned land theftstate-sanctioned daily torture and interrogation of Palestinian youth, and not least its state-sanctioned incarceration of 2 million Gazans is scarcely anti-Semitic; it is legitimate and rightful condemnation of an oppressive regime.

In refusing to confront these realities squarely, many of Israel's apologists resort to false accusations; they insist that criticism of Zionism is Jew-baiting. They cry "anti-Semitic!" against anyone who dares question Israel's brutal occupation of Palestine. Heavy psychological artillery is thus deployed to secure Israel's "immunity" from condemnation. If sealed as law, Will Bouma's private member's bill will grant these persons even more firepower with which to aggress the tribunes of racial justice.

Honourable members of the Ontario legislature, are you among those who have buckled under the pressure? Do you worry that Israel's defenders will excoriate you? It is not an unreasonable concern. But as an Israeli historian once said: If you dread the shame of being falsely accused of anti-Semitism, remember the daily agony of those who live under Israeli occupation, whose houses are demolished before their eyes, unjustifiably, whose hospitals and schools are bombed with white phosphorus, whose land is ravaged by Jewish settlements, and whose children, at a tender age, are tortured by Israel's military. Your woes, he argued, will pale beside theirs as you contemplate their fate. In the face of vilification from combative Zionists, he urged courage, not submission.

We, Jews of conscience, ask you to stand firm and resist the false alarm that Israel's apologists sound when they cry "anti-Semitism!" as the proverbial boy might cry "wolf!" For those who do so are robbing a horrendous phenomenon of its gravity, conflating legitimate dissent with genocide.

We ask you to rescind your endorsement of the IHRA-WDA, this self-privileging definition that will only gag rightful criticism of Israel's transgressions. 

We urge you to strike down this perilous bill and, this, so that no racism -- none -- shall ever darken our door again. 

Michelle Weinroth is a member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada. She writes extensively on political rhetoric.

Image: Photo by Bruce Reeve, modified by Independent Jewish Voices Canada

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